Jogging, Bodybuilding and Aerobics the Holistic Way
I am fitness buff. I love to jog, weight train, and do hard-core aerobics. I know that exercise like yoga and t’ai chi are supposed to help with stress, but frankly I’ve tried them and they’re not my cup of tea. Is there a way I can make what I’m already doing more holistic? I like my fitness routine and don’t want to stop, but I do want to get more out of it.
As more and more people naturally awake to more holistic ways of living, exercising and going about the day, it’s becoming clearer that not everyone needs to race to buy a yoga mat and start doing asanas. In your case, just start where you are and with the kinds of exercise you clearly enjoy. Consider bringing to your fitness regime these useful principles:
Exercise mindfully. Physical activity affords us a great opportunity to become more mindful and aware of our bodies and their great capacity for movement, sensation, and emotion. When jogging, ask yourself, “How does the ground feel on my feet?” Feel your blood pumping, your sweat forming, your legs advancing one after the other in a remarkable muscular coordination that many of us have long taken for granted. Forget your to-do lists. Forget about the annoying meeting you had earlier in the day. Just run. Feel whatever emotions your feeling and let them pass by with the scenery. Exercising in this mindful manner will not only improve your athletic performance, but will help you gain greater awareness of who you are right now.
Remember to breathe. Consider breathing an important aspect of your training in its own right. To quote from Dr. Andrew Weil’s book, Spontaneous Healing, “Breathing may be the master function of the body, affecting all others…If breath is the movement of spirit in the body- a central mystery that connects us to all creation- then working with the breath is a form of spiritual practice. It also impacts health and healing, because how we breathe both reflects the state of the nervous system and influences the state of the nervous system. You can learn to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, and digestion by consciously changing the rhythm and depth of breathing.” Before and after your training, take a few minutes to practice some slow, deep, and appreciative breaths. It’s part of a good warm-up routine, and can help you transition in and out of intense exercise.
Get in tune with nature’s seasonality. New England, where I live, is one of the most distinctly seasonal parts of our country, with its snowy winters, fragrant springs, beach-worthy summers, and classic autumns. Each season has a unique character and energy. By tuning into this energy, you can make your exercise more authentic and true to its context. In the springtime, feel the spring in your step, and try to jog along fragrant and oxygen-rich parkways and paths. Respect the summer’s heat by exercising outdoors in the morning or around sunset. Let autumn’s yearly retreat into winter present you with opportunities to reflect on your own aging process and the need to exercise with maturity. And in winter, life’s dormant period, ease up on the vigorous exercise and make sure you get plenty of sleep and warmth.
Put some yin and yang into your exercise. This millennia-old principle of opposite forces complementing each other has much to teach us. The dots in both portions of the yin/yang symbol remind us that there are always traces of one in the other. Since you are drawn to exercise that is considerably more yang than yoga and t’ai chi, I challenge you to seek the softer, suppler yin nature that quietly resides inside the yang of your tennis swing, your weight crunches, and your running. Do you really have to tense those muscles so tight when you grip the weights, or would adding a more gentle fluidity to your motion get the job done easier and take you to a higher level of performance? It’s no surprise that some hard-core athletes counter-train by adding more yin practices like t’ai chi, yoga, and meditation to their fitness regimes.
Exercise on all levels: body, mind and spirit. Exercising just for improving your physical health or appearance is a wasted opportunity when our mind and spirit can benefit at the same time. When working out or playing a sport, get in touch with your warrior spirit, a fighting spirit that seeks not to beat an opponent but instead reaches for spiritual awakening. As the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes in her 2001 book, The Places That Scare You, “We have many examples of master warriors—people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King—who recognized that the greatest harm comes from our own aggressive minds…There are also many ordinary people who spend their lives training in opening their hearts and minds in order to help others do the same. Like them, we could learn to relate to ourselves and our world as warriors. We could train in awakening our courage and love…The practices of meditation, loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are our tools.” As you work out, ask yourself: What is my target? What can this sport teach me about life and my purpose in it? How can my regular fitness practices help strengthen my warrior spirit and open my heart and mind?
It’s not just about you. Make it also about others, and for the good of the earth. Most television advertisements for sports gear such as running shoes give you the impression that athleticism is all about your personal best and, by implication, the products you supposedly need to help achieve that. But that’s of course not the whole picture in the least. Were those running shoes produced in a sweatshop, or by someone who was paid a living wage? Is your jogging route trash-strewn, and if so is there something you can do to improve its beauty and safety, like taking part in a neighborhood clean-up program? Some politicians out there may appear physically fit, but do their policies advance health and wellness for everyone? Exercise your conscience by voting and volunteering for a healthier society and planet.
No matter what exercise you choose, working out is great opportunity to more fully experience being alive—so don’t just “feel the burn,” feel the life!
First published in Boston Natural Awakenings magazine's April 2006 "Ask Karlo" column.
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